Soccer is beautiful, just the way it is

Like all of you, I’ve spent the last several weeks dodging work in order to watch World Cup matches. Despite qualms I might have about the games being in Qatar, I can’t pull myself away from the event. On an affective level, World Cup soccer almost seems like a requirement.

And this year. Just wow.

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We’ve not only had some magnificent games go to penalties, but we’ve had generational storylines. The Morocco Cinderalla story. The potential fulfillment of what seems like should be Messi’s destiny. The Ronaldo exit. The awful shared experience of the death of Grant Wahl. The controversy following that death. The constant and ongoing discussion of the politics that led to a winter World Cup in a desert.  

To those of us who get it, we are watching the great game on earth in the context of hugely emotional storylines, some of which have nothing to do with what happens on the pitch itself. And we’ve learned to count on that. 

A global psychodrama providing the context for a game that, in and of itself, leaves its fans constantly on edge, praying for the final whistle when our team is ahead, praying for a miracle when we are not. And the low level of scoring means that we almost always have a reason for those prayers up until the final whistle blows.  

For some of us, it’s impossible to imagine anything better, even though we do love other sports (e.g., I love college basketball; I love baseball). 

Which is why I never cease to be amazed at the predictable columns and comments that come out after every World Cup that follow a formula something like this: “Now that the World Cup is over, we can ignore soccer once again.” Or, “The United States is out. Soccer is boring. If we want Americans to like it, here’s how they should change the game to make it more exciting.”

This inevitably (and most basically) turns into a discussion of how to make the game “higher scoring” so that there will be fewer ties and more excitement for the fans. For instance, I had one friend last week who suggested that soccer should be played without goal keepers since they only stop a few goals per game, anyway.

I suppose as a thought experiment, it might be fun to think that way about a sport you don’t like.  I mean, I could certainly come up with a list of ways to make the NFL even remotely interesting to me. But why would I do that? Football in the US is a sport loved, worshiped, adored by millions. People are emotionally involved in a deep, abiding fashion. Why in the world do they need my ideas to change it?

Soccer is a global game adored by billions, in part because the difficulty of scoring—what you might see as dragging the game down—makes every potential score and every score, that much bigger of a deal.  When an opponent of Iowa basketball goes on a 12 point run, I may be a little worried, but I know that we’ll inevitably go on a run as well. A few scores don’t get me that worried. 

When someone scores a single goal against Chelsea, I’m terrified that the game may be over. I’m on edge from there on out.

So, on the one hand, I’m not interested in such opinions because they don’t understand what it is that drives those of us who love the game. They don’t understand that a draw can be meaningful (in a way that, I agree, it’s not meaningful, in NFL games).  

But I also don’t understand what such columns/ideas are supposed to do? Make soccer attractive to Americans? Well, it certainly is a small sport still for most US citizens, but if you include everyone in the US, including the rather large Latinx population who you may not be paying attention to, you have a good number of die hard fans who don’t want the game changed.

Indeed, what Major League Soccer discovered after it had several rules early on meant to make the league “more exciting” for Americans, was that American fans wanted the sport completely in line with the global game.  

The people who love the sport don’t want it changed.

I have a friend who is a runner but has a real love for cycling. He told me once that he thought all runners would become cyclists if they just understand how much more fun it is.

And that is the same type of arrogance a lot of writers have about soccer.  If you understood the things I love, you would love them, too.  

Some of us do know the things you love, some of us know all types of sports that you don’t love. And we still breathe soccer. You don’t have to worry about us, but, stop asking us to change.

It’s beautiful, just as it is.

Author: John Sloopgrew up in Asheville, NC, and after forays to Georgia and Iowa, found his way to Nashville over 25 years ago. On a trip to Portland, Oregon, 15 years ago, he watched the (then) USL Portland Timbers youth squad play one afternoon and fell completely and totally in love with soccer, to the detriment of his love of all other sports. In addition to thinking, writing, watching, and talking about soccer, Sloop teaches media and rhetoric at Vanderbilt. He is currently serving as the Chair of the Board of the Belcourt Theater and is part of the team that runs Tenx9 Nashville, a monthly story telling event.

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